ANKARA — Only in Turkey can accused “terrorists” overwhelm the shelves of Turkish bookstores from behind bars. These trendy new jailhouse authors that include Turkish military officers, academicians and journalists have published more than 60 books. Many of them have been detained since June 2007 under a colossal trial called the “Ergenekon,” that accused 275 but convicted none of plotting to overthrow Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
At the TUYAP book fair in Istanbul recently, it was mind boggling to see the number of bestselling authors who wrote their oeuvres from behind bars.
The mere fact that imprisoned people can get their books published, however, should not give the impression that there is tolerance for the freedom of expression in this country. Irony has become an integral part of Turkish politics and social fabric. A recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) makes it abundantly clear that it is not only those behind bars — 49 have been jailed in direct relation to their journalism — who are at risk. The atmosphere of fear and self-censorship in the country stands as a significant challenge to the maturity of Turkish democracy.
Huseyin Ersoz, a lawyer who represents multiple Ergenekon suspects, told Al-Monitor that state-led intimidation has created a chilling effect on freedom of speech. “The dawn raids, followed by arrests and the ongoing trials, have created such atmosphere that [journalists] feel under pressure and think twice before writing anything critical about the government,” he said. “This sense of intimidation shows that we’re actually going through a more dangerous process than all the past military coup periods, including the one in 1980. People were arrested then for the things they had written. Now, they prefer not to write.”
In Samizdat, Soner Yalcin, one of the jailed journalists who Ersoz represents, chronicles his experiences since police raided his house the morning of Feb.14, 2011. The book takes its name from a Russian concept that literally means “self-publishing.” It was a technique writers under severe oppression used to make sure censored publications did not disappear entirely by hand-writing the work, then distributing it again. Yalcin’s Samizdat, though, reads as a gripping thriller. Samizdat is a chilling account of the complexity of these trials. It brings into question not only the right to fair trial, but also the density of conspiracy that resulted in Yalcin and hundreds of others finding themselves in Silivri Prison.
“The key in these politically-charged trials is that all the evidence is digital, including the OdaTv case,” Ersoz said. Yalcin is the owner of popular news portal OdaTv, which has about 200,000 visitors a day, significant traffic for online journalism in Turkey. Yalcin, a well-known name for his lively articles at one of the country’s most prominent newspaper, Hurriyet, and for his ability to influence public opinion, will appear before the judge on Dec. 27 — for the 21st time.
With no access to computers or the internet in prison, Yalcin, as well as other imprisoned authors, have taken to hand-writing. Baris Terkoglu, one of the recently released suspects in the OdaTv trial told Al-Monitor that when they were sent to prison, he and Baris Pehlivan, another suspect in the OdaTv case, were just about to finish their co-authored book on all things related to Turkey in WikiLeaks. But because the police took their belongings, they started to write it from scratch in their separate cells. “We gave what we wrote to our families. They wrote it on computer and sent it back to us,” said Terkoglu. “Soner Yalcin read the court documents for months before writing his book. He, too, wrote by hand.”
Most of these books challenge the state’s accusations against them, but there are some who focus on different topics. Gen. Ilker Basbug — a former military chief and the highest-ranking officer to be arrested as part of the Eregenekon trial — just published his first book, The Greatest Leader of the 20th Century: Ataturk (from 1923 to 1938), from his jail cell. As the country’s founding father becomes an increasingly controversial name under the spotlight of current politicking in Turkey, Basbug provides a new perspective as to why Ataturk’s vision is the best one, not only for his nation but for the entire region.
Still, while the accused can write their jailhouse tomes, and anyone can buy them, the chilling effect of these political trials on freedom of speech and opinion, and the fear of being accused of terrorism, overshadows the power of the prisoners’ words.